The Clippers (56-26) have clinched at least the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, but they’d probably have an easier first-round matchup if they fell to the No. 5 seed.
That’s because the Trail Blazers (51-30) are guaranteed a top-four seed for winning the Northwest Division. So, the Spurs (55-26), Rockets (55-26) or Grizzlies (54-27) will fall to the No. 6 seed and face the No. 3 seed. The fifth seed gets to play Portland.
Moreover, if the Southwest Division winner wins tonight – whether it’s the Spurs or Rockets – that team would hold tiebreaker over the Clippers. It doesn’t matter that the Clippers split the season series with both San Antonio and Houston. The first tiebreaker favors the division winner, and the Clippers finished behind the Warriors in the Pacific Division.
Rivers, via Arash Markazi of ESPN:
“That’s a flaw,” Rivers said. “I think the divisions are important. They’re nice to have. They’re nice to be celebrated, for some and some not, but I don’t know if they should be celebrated as far as in the standings. I think it’s something that the league will absolutely look at and try to fix. You shouldn’t be rewarded if your record [isn’t as good as others].”
“I just think if you tie with us, let’s say if we had gone undefeated against a team but our records are tied and they would get home court, that to me is insane,” Rivers said. “That’s worse in some ways to me, because head-to-head should always go first. But there’s flaws and you fix them, and I think the league will look at that.”
I agree with Rivers, and although Adam Silver says there are no quick fixes, I see an easy solution here:
Stop rewarding division winners when determining playoff seeds.
Stop guaranteeing them a top-four seed. Stop giving them a tiebreaking advantage.
Do division championships really mean anything now? Are teams successfully marketing them? Would they mean less if they weren’t tied to playoff seeding?
Unlike the more-complex debate about allowing in the top 16 teams regardless of conference, this wouldn’t require any schedule changes. Teams play intra-divisional opponents four times, the same number of times they play most intra-conference/non-divisional opponents. They play the other intra-conference/non-divisional opponents three times.
There’d be nothing wrong with tweaking the schedule, even eliminating divisions, but the schedule change would practically be microscopic.
The NBA could dial back my reform proposals a notch* – maybe guaranteeing a division winner a playoff berth instead of a top-four seed, keeping it as a tiebreaker but further down the list. That would still match the symbolic value of a division titles with at least some practical value – but not too much. It would make division titles practically irrelevant most, if not all, years.
As it stands, the system is convoluted just so a few teams can brag about division titles. I don’t think that’s worth the tradeoff.
*I’d really like to see the top three seeds choose their opponents among the bottom four seeds, but I’m trying not to get too radical here.